The Venice Biennale is a 19th-century invention. The first event was held there as long ago as 1895, and this year’s version is the 53rd. In all that time, the Biennale has been riddled with politics, and shaped by them. You cannot crowd 77 nations onto somewhere as small and cut-off as Venice and expect them to cease their bickering.
So it is with a certain amount of territorial pride that I am able to report that the politics on display at Venice this year are unusually mature. Obviously, the most important question being asked is the same old question on all our lips right now: how must we understand the credit crunch? The collapse of the global economy is as big an elephant in the room in Venice as it is everywhere else. But because modern art is habitually incapable of coming out with it and saying what it means, most of the tackling of the topic in Venice is exquisite, delicate and thoughtful.
Britain’s contribution is a superior example. As one of the Biennale’s founding nations, we are old hands at these twisty global man oeuvrings. But after Tracey Emin’s uncharacteristically timid showing at the 2007 Biennale, there was more pressure than usual on the British pavilion to get it right. Which it has. Our man in Venice, Steve McQueen, is one of the event’s successes. His haunting two-screen installation is actually set in the Biennale gardens, the Giardini. Filmed out of season, in the winter, it shows nature sneakily reclaiming the location for itself once the art crowd has fled. Earthworms glisten in the rain. Spiders climb down from the trees. A pack of thin black dogs sniffs hungrily around the empty pavilions.
Initially, it all looks so damp and squalid. But slowly, quietly, beautifully, nature reasserts her dominion. If I am making Mc-Queen’s film sound overly precious and poetic, I am doing it a disservice. Midway through, a couple of gay men creep out of the shadows for a nocturnal assignation. The forces of nature being noted here are taut and furtive. We are watching a power struggle between a genuine global power (nature) and a mere pretender (civilisation).
At every Biennale, Venice’s string-pullers choose an international curator to think up a theme and build the Biennale around it. This year’s director, Daniel Birnbaum, from Sweden, has come up with a humdinger of an obfuscation: Making Worlds. It means absolutely everything, and absolutely nothing. Try to understand it and it slithers from your grasp like a thrashing eel. Fortunately, the value of the Biennale lies not in the fake thematic order imposed upon it so hopelessly by its organisers, but in the real opportunity it provides for seeing what the world is up to right now, art-wise. At the Biennale, nationalism and art coexist in uniquely vivid ways.
The American policy of always handing over its pavilion to experienced, blue-chip artists works really well again. The chosen one, Bruce Nauman, is a classy and serious presence. A ring of neon signs flashing on and off around Nauman’s pavilion, constantly naming and renaming the seven deadly sins, employs the banal language of a cheap motel exterior to broadcast a biblical accusation of guilt to the visiting world. Gluttony, lust, avarice – who, me?
Alas, the other leading Biennale nations, the ones with the biggest pavilions, who got there first, commit their usual Biennale sins. Hands-down winner of the Most Boring Pavilion Prize is, once again, Germany, represented, ridiculously, by the British installation artist Liam Gillick. Filling the German bunker with a stripped-down Ikea kitchen that meanders dully through the rooms like an unpainted train set, Gillick is making his usual point about the banality of modern textures. Curators like his work because it offers them limitless opportunities for extensive displays of curator-speak. But I have never met a member of the public who enjoys a Gillick exhibition. The man is a world-class bore, and for the Germans to claim him for themselves is one of God’s little favours to the British.
Real estate and the modern interior turn out to be the Biennale’s lesser themes. Lots of artists from lots of countries home in on the property market as a suitable target. The Danish pavilion, for instance, is for sale. Make an appointment with the girl outside, and you are taken on a detailed tour of the building by a pair of pretend English estate agents who overlook the obvious flaws in the property – the staircase has fallen down; the dining table has been split asunder by an earthquake – and offer it to you at a bargain price. It’s an amusing metaphor for the current state of the world and seems to be making the point that the best way to recover from a global catastrophe is to deny its exis tence. Claude Lévêque, in the French pavilion, has built a black prison in the shape of a church. It, too, is seeking to evoke the modern condition, but this melodramatic installation commits the cardinal Biennale sin of being too gothic and obvious. When you need a protest song, you call in Bob Dylan, not Ozzy Osbourne.
Japan’s representative, meanwhile, Miwa Yanagi, has been eating too much raw meat. Her huge paintings of big-breasted neanderthal Amazons rampaging through a prehistoric landscape constitute the least Japanese display I have ever encountered here. I didn’t even know that Wilma Flintstone could paint.
How typical of the Japanese to be completely out of step with the Biennale’s prevailing atmosphere, which is sombre and moral. This is not a Biennale full of spec tacular new works and outrageous artistic developments. Most of its artists are in a reflective mood.
I was much taken by the Polish pavilion, which Krzysztof Wodiczko has turned into an eerie orangery whose windows are haunted by gangs of shadowy figures. They’re trying to get in, but can’t. A sudden rainstorm drenches them to the bone, while you, inside, remain nice and dry. An adjacent text tells you Wodiczko’s piece is concerned with the fate of Poland’s immigrant workers.
Outside the Giardini, the Biennale overflows as usual into every Venetian nook and cranny. Just when you think all the disused palazzi have surely been taken over by now, along comes a new nation to find another one. Syria is here this year. So is Palestine. And a show called East-West Divan, located, paradoxically, in the old Jewish quarter, has artists from Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan. In all their cases, the chief ambition is to immerse you in the painful problematics of the Middle East. Yes, the agitprop usually overwhelms the aesthetics. But I found the opportunity to encounter modern artists from Kabul thoroughly heartening, nevertheless. You never hear about them on the news. I didn’t even know there were any.
Less delightful is the first-time presence of a number of Arab states that appear to be using the Biennale as a trade mission. They’re the ones with the biggest yachts moored outside the Giardini. The United Arab Emirates treats us to full-scale models showing what Dubai will look like once the skyscrapers are finished: tall, clean, faceless and ghastly. The property theme continues with the Dubai artist Lamya Gargash, who has photographed the interiors of one-star hotels in the emirates in a clunky display of pseudomodernism that involves making sure the royal family is prominently featured. Nowhere are the links between art and business more evident, or more regrettable.
Because Making Worlds is such an absurdly vague theme, the central Biennale exhibition of the same name, displayed in the old dockyards, is free to show whomever it chooses, however it wants. To his credit, Birnbaum has kept down the number of exhibitors and gives each of them a decent display at this spectacular venue, in which real submarines (left behind by the Italian navy) jostle for space with fake airships (launched into the Venetian skies by the Mexican artist Hector Zamora). The first time I went round the Making Worlds exhibition, the huge room given over to the veteran arte-povera artist Michelangelo Pistoletto was filled with huge mirrors that made you feel as if you were being spied on, and were very uncomfortable to walk through. The next time I came, the same mirrors had been smashed to bits. In between, Pistoletto had mounted a performance with a hammer, which I wish I’d seen.
In feeling as if it were saying something vivid about the sudden collapse of the old world order, while not actually being about it at all, Pistoletto’s installation was typical of this subtle and serious Biennale.